Blades wasn’t sure what everyone else seemed to find so compelling about Cybertron. He didn’t like it much, personally. The air was too thin, so if he tried to get much further up than the height required to avoid running his blades into anyone’s head, he ran the risk of falling, slipping, and there’d never been anything he hated more than that up too high feeling, when he couldn’t get a grip on the air because there was nothing left to get a grip on. And the place was so quiet, quiet in ways that Earth wasn’t, unless you were up very high and couldn’t hear anything over the sound of your own engine and the rush of the air you displaced and hung yourself on. There was no sound at all. There wasn’t really any wind, there weren’t any pigeons or crows or seagulls or any of the other birds that came to cities. There were no rats making their soft, squeaky, social noises where no one could see them. There was no quick chitinous chitter of many legged exoskeletoned animals moving through and over the walls. There was no hum of power waiting to be used, there was no soft rustle of trees or bushes or tall swamp grasses. There was no rhythmic voice of the sea, no patter of water, no shift of thick vapor clouds, no sun to tell you how long the day was and how much longer you could wait and the two moons were dark and muted. There was only those two sickly moons and the stars to see by and it made Blades nervous, made him long for the great cool disc of Earth’s moon, so close you could see its vast, cratered seas, and the comforting movement of Earth’s fellow planets, wandering points of light within the stars.
It’s all right, he reminded himself for the eightieth time since he’d gotten on the shuttle, what felt like ten years past but was really only forty nine hours ago, It’s supposed to look like this, and soon you’ll be back home again.
“What are you talking about?” Silverbolt had asked him earlier, when he was loading crates into Blades – evacuation operations always involved a fair amount of lifting and carrying and Blades preferred to do as much of it as he could manage, seeing as how he was built for cargo, and also that way Hot Spot didn’t take it into his head that he needed to try and do any of it. That never went well. “This is home.”
No, it’s not, he didn’t say. “Slip of the tongue,” he said instead, and put up with Silverbolt looking at him funny, as much for the very human turn of phrase as for the supposed slip.
The other Autobots worried about his team, he knew it, he’d overheard the conversations, because he’d been listening for them, and even if he hadn’t been, Streetwise had known too. “They programmed us a bit too well,” Streetwise had told him. “We’re just a little too native to be comfortable.”
It made Blades angry, sometimes. He and his team hadn’t just happened. They’d been made, and they’d been made to be good with humans, to like them, to be quick to adapt to an organic turn of mind, to be dedicated to the point of obsession to their various functions – although, admittedly, that last was probably just an accidental quirk. You got what you got, when you made new people, and they were what the Autobots had wanted.
It wasn’t their fault that what command had wanted was Autobots who could think almost like humans.
And it certainly wasn’t their fault that they couldn’t just turn the mindset on and off because that would be more convenient. It probably was their fault that somehow, this had resulted in the other four having the collective self-preservation instinct of a dead squid. Blades could pin that one on them, sure enough, because he hadn’t taken it into his head that he could press his specifications far past their breaking points and not come smack up against the hard, flat, unmoveable wall of the limits built into his body.
He wasn’t sure why his team thought they could.
Blades found Hot Spot leaning over a chart with one of the Cybertonian commanders – Ultra Magnus, that was his name. It was always important to remember people’s names if you could, and Blades worked hard at it. It wasn’t a skill that came easily to him, like it did to Streetwise.
“This is one of yours,” Blades said, as he put a hand on Hot Spot’s elbow and leaned in to see. It was rare to see one of Hot Spot’s charts actually written down. He usually kept them in his head or put them up on the wall with pushpins and string.
Hot Spot nodded. “Did you need anything, Blades?”
“Rest,” Blades said. “It’s been forty nine hours since we left headquarters – by my clock we have less than an hour before we’ll have to stop.”
Ultra Magnus looked at them both with a sort of gentle bemusement. Blades winced inwardly. Human measurements of time, of course, but why would he use anything else? He worked with humans, it was stupid to try and think in some sort of translation of Cybertonian conceptions of time all the time. He understood hours, understood days and nights and the passage of weeks or months. It might not be long enough to feel real to someone used to living slow, but to Blades it felt right, all the small changes those passages of time brought tugged at him, grounded him, and made it a lot easier to get his teammates safely shut down long enough for their systems to recover.
Hot Spot twitched a little. “You’re right,” he said. “I suppose you don’t think I can talk First Aid into – ”
“No,” Blades said. “There is no chance of that happening. We will both be rusted away and the archaeological finds of the millennium before that happens.”
“Just the millennium?”
“We might be able to get ‘of the epoch’, but most people don’t know what that is.”
“What is an epoch?” Ultra Magnus asked. He seemed to be sincerely interested, and Blades decided that he had a nice sort of voice.
“A human measurement of geological time,” Blades told him. “They’re a few hundred thousand years long, usually, but they vary.”
“Not very long, then.”
Blades shrugged and leaned more heavily on Hot Spot’s elbow. Hot Spot shook his head apologetically at Ultra Magnus. “I’m sorry, sir, but my teammate is right.”
Ultra Magnus smiled back. “Yes. Go on, head off shift – I’m impressed by the work you’ve done already.”
“Thank you, sir!” said Hot Spot, and he was beaming, suddenly, neither he nor First Aid having ever needed mouths for that, just plain glowing, his body language almost as bright as it was when Prime praised him.
Blades could feel something flare inside him, strong enough to smother systems, choke his engines. It was strange, he thought, that there was a physical sensation to go with jealous fear, but there always had been, as long as he could remember, and he thought that maybe Cybertron made it worse. Nothing ran by the right rules here. Maybe their team wouldn’t either. “Come on,” he said, “let’s go now, or you won’t.”
“You know me too well,” Hot Spot said.
Blades glared at Hot Spot until he gave in, laughing, and radioed the rest of the team with briskly worded orders and directions to meet back up at the shuttles.
“You’re not much good at glaring, you know that?” Hot Spot told Blades as he shut his radio back down.
Blades made a face. “It works on custom agents.”
“Customs agents are looking up at a pretty hard angle,” Hot Spot said, “I bet they can’t see how young you look.”
“Like that first time we went out and you realized you couldn’t stay with the rest of us – ”
Blades punched him lightly in the shoulder. “Don’t start.”
Hot Spot bounced away, out of Blades’ range. “All right, all right!” he said, laughing, “No need to get violent.”
“You say that all the time,” Blades grumbled.
Hot Spot laced his hands together behind his head. “And I’m right all the time. Race you!”
“Hey, wai –” But Hot Spot deprived of his work turned to other methods to soothe his constant, driven restlessness, and Blades didn’t have any choice but to transform and take off after him, slightly awkward in the sickly air.
If it was a race between all of them, neither of them won it. Groove was already standing at the slack gate to the gutted building that Prime had ordered turned into a shuttle bay for the duration of the evacuation operation. At least some things were universal constants, Blades thought, and grinned as he transformed back. Groove always won races. Blades suspected he cheated, but he didn’t really care. Groove was Groove. Blades wasn’t going to begrudge him his position as best racer.
Groove smiled back at him. “Hey.”
“Hey, yourself,” Hot Spot said, “Streetwise here yet?”
“No, he was on perimeter when your call came through.”
Blades stepped around Hot Spot to press past Groove, brushing the backs of their hands together quick. Hey, I’m glad you’re okay, the movement said, and then Blades was out of Groove and Hot Spot’s conversation. They would need to talk news for a bit. They always did. Groove found things out, and Hot Spot needed to know them. Most days Blades found things out too, but here on Cybertron he was at a disadvantage. He couldn’t get high enough to survey.
That was fine. He was built to do most anything that needed doing.
First Aid was in the makeshift bay, of course. Blades had known he would be. He’d heard the radio exchange when damage was discovered in one of the shuttles’ wings. First Aid was sprawled across a wing, precariously balanced to reach an open panel.
“Are you sure you don’t need a ladder or something?” a mech who looked like a lit panel photograph of autumn in Vermont asked, craning his neck as he hovered near First Aid, “Or a hand, or anything? I’m not saying I think you’re going to fall but - …No, I am saying that. I think you’re going to fall.”
“We already looked for a ladder, remember?” First Aid said, with what was, for First Aid, an almost obnoxious cheeriness. Blades had realized a few months into their lives that most people had trouble telling the difference between First Aid when he was disgustingly happy and First Aid when he was merely content, but the team had always known. It was mostly in whether or not you wanted to push him into the nearest river. “I’ll be fine. If I fall, you’ll catch me.”
Mr. Vermont straightened, his shoulders squaring up. Blades bet he thought that showed off his ridiculous little wingy thingy. (Blades knew all the terms that related to automobile anatomy, but the way he saw it, this didn’t mean he had to use them.) “I will!” he said. “No problem.”
Blades made a face. “You won’t,” he said, “because he never falls.”
“Thank you, Blades!” First Aid said happily, completely failing to look up from his repair work.
Blades huffed. He wasn’t exactly designed for it, so it took work, but he’d had a lot of practice. “Don’t start,” he said, “you wouldn’t be planning to ignore an order to rest, would you?”
“Of course not,” First Aid said. Mr. Vermont was staring again, with that thunderstruck look people tended to get the first several times they met First Aid. Blades didn’t know what that meant on an Autobot from Cybertron. On humans it usually meant something like But I Thought People Like This Only Existed In Frank Capra Films! “But I’d hardly head in without you.”
“You wouldn’t, would you?” Blades grumbled. He held out his hands. “Right. Come down now.”
First Aid finally took a hint and wriggled across the wing to look down to Blades. “You’re going to catch me?”
“There isn’t really room in here to get up to you flying.”
Mr. Vermont made an unidentifiable noise. “You’re going to jump?” he said.
“Don’t worry, Hot Rod,” First Aid said. Ah, so Mr. Vermont did have a name. Blades was slightly disappointed. Now he’d have to work at remembering it. “I jumped to get up, after all. Thank you again for your help.”
And with that he slipped over the edge of the wing and dropped neatly down. Blades caught him, but it was a narrow thing, and Blades was grateful for his strength as he swung First Aid close and set him on his feet. Swinging him close was probably unnecessary – it was just showing off, really, making a display of the fact that he could, and that First Aid would let him, and if he’d tried it on Streetwise or Groove he might have been in trouble. But First Aid just chuckled. Blades knew he’d noticed and he knew he wouldn’t mention it.
“We’re waiting on one more group, and then we can lift off,” Streetwise said, as he swung in through the gate, Hot Spot and Groove behind him. “They ran into a blockade. Now they’re due to arrive sometime tomorrow.”
Blades turned, his hands still braced under First Aid’s elbows. First Aid turned with him.
Groove was shaking his head. “It’s such a small operation.”
First Aid turned his head sharply to look at Hot Rod and said, in the clearest, most carrying voice he’d ever managed to learn, “Big enough. You’re just used to human populations.”
Hot Spot looked where First Aid was looking. Blades knew that twitch of his shoulders. From anyone else it would be a wince. “He’s got a good point, Groove. We just don’t do the same population densities. Never have.”
Blades was pretty sure Groove’s smile was meant for Hot Rod too. “You’re right, of course.”
They weren’t, though, and they all five knew it. It was a small evacuation because it was an evacuation that should have been done a long, long time ago, before they were even built. It should have been done back when there was still energy to do it on Cybertron. The Autobots were going to be in debt to the United Nations for centuries over this mission. It was a good thing they were accepting independent peacekeeping services and mutual protection in trade.
There had been too much famine. It was no wonder it was a small operation. You couldn’t maintain a population under that much resource stress and the stress of a war. It wasn’t possible. Frankly, it was a miracle there was anyone left at all.
First Aid stepped away from Blades to say something to Hot Spot, so soft that Blades couldn’t hear it. Hot Spot nodded.
Groove slung an arm around Blade’s shoulders, careful of his rotor blades, and gently squeezed, just strong enough to be felt. Blades shrugged. He was fine, really. Cybertron was throwing him, but it wouldn’t be much longer now. They’d go home. It had to be not much longer, or they’d get stuck, the mission would fail, and the force left on Earth would be in serious trouble. Optimus Prime would never allow that, so they’d be going back once the last group came.
Groove tilted his head in answer to the shrug. He didn’t buy it. Typical.
“Come on,” Blades said, “you’re all stalling.”
Streetwise laughed. “He’s right. You are stalling.”
Blades cast a disgusted glance Streetwise’s way. “What do you mean ‘you’? You’re stalling too. You should say ‘we’.”
Streetwise ignored him. Streetwise was surprisingly good at that. Blades figured it came of picking up on everything. If you didn’t learn how to tune some things out you were probably going to get in a great deal of trouble very, very quickly.
“I’m sorry, Blades,” First Aid said. “Thank you again for the help, Hot Rod,” he added, turning to him, where he stood slightly awkwardly at the side of the team. “I really do appreciate it.”
Hot Rod waved a hand. “No problem.”
“Stalling again,” Blades said. Groove chuckled and tugged at him, not that you could tell that was what he was doing if you were only looking.
“Come on, then,” he said, “Lead the way, oh practical one.”
“Why do I have to be the practical one?” Blades asked, but obeyed.
The way was just to one of the shuttles – it was a good place to rest, being large enough for all of them and unlikely to abruptly decide to crumble in on them.
“What’s going on, Blades?” Groove asked, as he settled down against the wall. “You’re stressed, even for you.”
“I’m not high strung,” Blades said, an obligatory salvo in their old argument, which they were having, even if Groove wasn’t admitting it yet, and sighed, sitting down across from Groove. “It’s just this place. It’s pretty much dead already, and that gives me the creeps.”
Hot Spot came in ahead of First Aid, holding up his hands as First Aid poked at him with one accusing finger. “It’s not easy to deal with,” Hot Spot said, and slid away from First Aid. “I swear, First Aid, I wasn’t trying to get away!”
Streetwise leaned around the door and slipped past the two in front of him, crossing to sit beside Groove and Blades, turning their line segment into a triangle. “It’d be beautiful if there were people,” he said, and put a hand on Blades’ knee.
“It’s not really just the people,” First Aid said, as he herded Hot Spot over to the corner Blades and Groove had staked out as theirs. “The whole ecosystem’s collapsed.”
“Do you think there was an ecosystem?” Hot Spot asked. He dropped down next to Blades and swept him into a one armed hug that somehow contrived to leave Blades half tumbled against him without any sort of stress on his rotors. Hot Spot was unfairly good at that.
“Hey!” Blades said, on general principle, but he didn’t try to move. Hot Spot was solid and warm, and Blades could hear the gentle sounds of his hydraulic lines and the low, constant thrum of his engine.
“I don’t know,” First Aid answered, and sat down on Hot Spot’s other side, leaning against Groove’s shoulder. “It stands to reason, though. I mean, I’ve heard some of the others say things that make it sound like there was. Mirage talks about hunting when he’s worried.”
“I’ve never heard Mirage worried,” Streetwise said. He unceremoniously flopped forward to sprawl across Blades’ legs.
Blades protested, of course. “Hey! I’m not that upset!”
“Shut up, Blades,” Streetwise said. “You are so.”
“That’s because Mirage is only ever worried if he’s hurt really bad,” First Aid said.
Blades considered wriggling, just to make his point. He wasn’t distressed enough to need coddling, no matter what Streetwise said. On the other hand, if his teammates were pinning him down to comfort him, then they weren’t running all over the dead metal streets working themselves half to death right along with the planet.
He decided his dignity could handle a little bruising, for the good of the team, and relaxed. Streetwise made a small, smugly satisfied noise. Blades reconsidered his position. Streetwise was in such good smacking range right now…
“I’m glad I haven’t heard him worried, then,” Groove said, and scooted closer to Blades, tugging First Aid along with him. First Aid went, happy now that someone had drawn him in, and took up Blades’ hand, twining their fingers together. Blades occasionally suspected that First Aid had more joints in his hands than anybody else – he could do things with them that didn’t seem entirely possible, like catching Blades’ hand so thoroughly in his that Blades knew he definitely wasn’t getting away.
“Yeah,” Blades said. “I wouldn’t want to deal with Mirage injured.”
First Aid squeezed his hand. “He’s not a bad patient.”
“Not for you,” Blades said.
Streetwise laughed. “Isn’t everyone good for you, First Aid?”
First Aid shrugged. “I wonder what made the ecosystem crash, anyway.”
“Wasn’t there an energy shortage?” Hot Spot asked. “I don’t know all that much about trophic levels, but that’d do it, right?”
“It would,” Groove said, “but what caused the shortage, anyway? I’ve never been able to get an answer out of anyone.”
“My bet’s environmental degradation caused by over exploitation and unsustainable build up,” Blades said, and waved his free hand, “It’d explain why Beachcomber’s so interested in energy sources that maintain equilibrium.”
“He’d be interested in that anyway,” Streetwise said, “they’re cool. And Earth’s not all that stable these days, either, so there’s the prevention aspect. You know Beachcomber says everything’ll happen eventually, so there’s no need to hurry it.”
“I think there must have been some kind of catastrophic event, too,” First Aid said. “I mean, the other things too, but really, where was anyone getting any energy at all? Cybertron doesn’t have a sun…”
“You think it used to have a sun?” Groove asked.
“Well, I don’t know, but isn’t a wandering planet strange?”
Blades grinned. “Strictly speaking – ”
“We all know what the word’s Greek for,” Streetwise said, in a tone that was pretty far to the snotty end of the spectrum. Blades did smack him for that, just a little. “Hey!”
“We should ask someone,” Hot Spot said, in his best responsible voice. “And we will, just as soon as we get a free moment.”
“Sounds like a good plan.” Groove stretched, small cables and servos popping in appreciation, and settled back with a better grip on First Aid, hauling him up and over until they were spilled together, as close to a tangle as beings made of planes and angles could get.
First Aid chuckled. Blades could see him relaxing, whatever he’d been worrying about – maybe it was nothing, it was hard to tell with First Aid – slipping away from him.
Hot Spot’s grip on him tightened just a little bit, and he relaxed into it too. It was easier, here, with his team about him, close enough together, never really matching, but fitting together just right, the way they were supposed to. True, outside Cybertron was still dark and cold and ominously empty, but here he could lean back and listen to the subtle hum of Streetwise’s processors relentlessly spinning away at all the problems he probably should have put down years ago, and that was good. As long as Streetwise was worrying a cold case like one of those little animals that never let go once they’d bit, he was fine.
They were all fine, and that was good. Blades shut down his optical sensors and listened vaguely to First Aid explaining something to Hot Spot about scheduling and the shuttle and the shuttle’s wing and maintenance. Like most of First Aid’s explanations it was cautiously pessimistic. Most people, Blades knew, usually put an ‘optimistic’ after ‘cautiously’, but those people had never been partnered with First Aid. When First Aid was optimistic he was never cautious about it – he said there wasn’t any point, you had to believe boldly, if you were going to believe at all. When he was pessimistic he was cautious, as if he wasn’t sure he quite had the right to be.
Blades figured if anyone had the right, First Aid did, but First Aid wouldn’t believe that, so it probably didn’t matter. Besides, Streetwise’s weight on his legs was comforting, and Groove’s voice was warm. Blades was tired of thinking.
He set Cybertron out of his mind, and did not think of the mortality of worlds, of the limits of the survival times of organic species, of the visions he saw of him, and Hot Spot, and First Aid, and Groove, and Streetwise, somewhere ages and ages on, standing guard still in the cold, charred dust of a long dead Earth, like the soldiers here on Cybertron, still clinging to something that was ended. It might be coming, but now he was alive, and what he loved was with him, and so he shut his systems down, one by one, bringing nothing with him into the quiet but the engine purr chorus of his team, alive and beloved and close around him, shutting out the silences of loss.